My great aunt is the ghost nun who haunts Croydon

The first lockdown of 2020 gave Helen Brooks the chance to research the life of her great aunt, a nun who died in the aftermath of a plane crash and is said to haunt the Roundshaw housing estate in Croydon. By Gail Dixon

Sister Helene (R) and Monica

A ghost dressed in a nun’s habit has been reported to haunt the Roundshaw housing estate in Croydon. And Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine reader Helen Brooks thinks that it could be the spirit of her great aunt.

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On 25 January 1947 Britain was in the grip of the worst winter on record, and snow was falling amid the fog at Croydon Airport.

Airline owner and pilot Edward Spencer had worked all night to prepare his recently purchased Dakota C-47A for a flight to Johannesburg in South Africa. Although an experienced pilot, he lacked knowledge of the Dakota and must have been exhausted.

There were 17 passengers and five crew members awaiting take-off that day. Among them was Helen Brooks’ great aunt Gertrude Lester, a nun known as Sister Helene du St Sacrement.

“I had always wanted to discover more about my great aunt,” Helen explains. “My uncle Gerard gave me a bundle of newspaper cuttings about her and this, plus lockdown, galvanised me into action.”

Gertrude Lester was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1894. This much-loved family photograph (above) shows her on the right, next to her sister Monica. Her father John worked in a cotton mill. Deeply religious, he used to walk seven miles to Mass every morning.

It was an astonishing act of heroism. Sister Helene could have jumped to safety, but her instinct was to save George’s life and go back to help others.

At the age of 19, Gertrude entered a convent in Garston, Liverpool, run by the religious order La Congrégation des Filles de la Sagesse. Sixteen years later she began working as a teacher in a convent school in Malawi. “In her journal she writes with great fondness of the African children.”

Sister Helene was unable to travel home for 17 years, mainly because of wartime restrictions. However, she returned to Britain in 1946, and spent five months visiting family and staying in convents. In January 1947, Sister Helene decided to travel back to Nyasaland with her colleagues Mother Provincial Jeanne and Sister Eugenie. Sadly, they were booked on the ill-fated flight.

An intriguing mix of passengers awaited departure that day, including a young film producer and a family with two children who were travelling to Bulawayo.

Newspaper reports revealed the shocking events of the crash. “Soon after take-off, the plane faltered and crash-landed,” Helen says. “Its left wing hit the ground, and it skidded into another aircraft. There was a rending explosion and an inferno.

“One passenger managed to open a door, and several people jumped out. Sister Helene was at the door, with her skirt on fire. A passenger called George Wright tried to help her, but a piece of blazing wood hit him on the back of the head. Sister Helene pushed him out of the door, then went back to try to help the other passengers. She perished in the flames alongside her fellow nuns.

“It was an astonishing act of heroism. Sister Helene could have jumped to safety, but her instinct was to save George’s life and go back to help others.”

Twelve people died that day, including Edward Spencer and the young family. Helen has traced the descendants of some of the passengers, but not George Wright’s. “He was around 27, and a Scottish serviceman who had just been demobbed. It would be wonderful to find out more.”

The story doesn’t end there. Croydon Airport closed in 1959, and the Roundshaw housing estate was built on the site. There have been various sightings of ghostly nuns, one of whom told a boy a bedtime story. “The apparition’s clothing matched my great aunt’s habit.”

Whatever the truth, there is no doubt whatsoever about Helen’s opinion of her near-namesake: “Sister Helene was an incredibly brave woman, and is definitely my family hero.”

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